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Q&A: Sky Yaeger, Shinola Bicycles

  • We recently had the opportunity to speak with Shinola‘s bike designer Sky Yaeger, an innovative industry veteran whose years of experience and expertise informed the beautifully crafted bicycles you may have seen (or even taken for a test ride) in some of our shops recently.  Sky spoke with us about her racing days, what went into the making of the new Shinola models, and what it was like to make her name in a male-dominated field.

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    Tell us about your first bike.
    Like most kids, it was a trike. My first “real” bike was a used 10-speed I bought when I was in high school for $60.

    You used to race. Do you have any particularly memorable racing moments?
    I was what we call, “pack fodder,” which means the racers in the middle of the pack, who don’t really affect the outcome of any race. So, I was essentially anonymous. At the track nationals in 1982, however, I was lucky enough to come up against two world champions, so that was pretty cool. When I raced mountain bikes, it was at the beginning of the sport and all the women lined up together, so briefly, I could ride with women who were pros and whom I admired from afar. I thought they were super-human, so to be able to ride with them was special. The most fun was racing on banked tracks, and I had an opportunity to race on the wooden velodrome in Mexico City, where, in 1972, Eddy Merckx set the world hour record. To be able to race on the same track and think that history was made there, was thrilling.

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    The Bixby frame at Waterford Precision Cycles

    You’re now a celebrated veteran of the bike world yourself. What was it like coming up in a male-dominated field?
    This is a really good question that I’ve been asked many times. I really have guys to thank, as I was hired by men, for every job I had! The sport of cycling, the actual act of riding in traffic and the technical product reality is intimidating to both men and women, Walking into a bike shop can be daunting, if there are only a bunch of extreme-looking guys behind the counter. Just fixing a flat takes a certain skill, as the bike is one of the most elegant and simple machines, but it is also deceivingly complex if you are new to the sport. Riding on the road or mountain takes confidence and skill. The act of riding includes everyone from kids and families to the racers in the Tour de France, but on the technical side it skews towards men, no doubt. I felt like being a woman was an asset, because I could hang with the guys on a bike and I knew the tech stuff, so I think I stood out from the herd of guys in the bike biz. I did choose to ignore sexist comments, though, which was challenging working with Italians, as I did for 17 years. I’ve told this story before, and every time I tell it it still sounds cuckoo, but the first bike shop I worked in – granted it was the dark ages – there was a sign on the swinging door between the sales counter and the mechanics’ work area that said, “No Girls Allowed.” When you run into something like that, you just have to walk through!

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    Frame being made for the Runwell model, at Waterford Precision Cycles in Wisconsin

    What were the challenges of designing a bike from scratch? What have you enjoyed most about it?
    Every bike design has challenges, some more daunting than others. Style of frame, engineering, sizes and geometry, material characteristics and material availability, component compatibility with the frame and fork, designs that will pass industry testing standards, manufacturing considerations (as they impact design immensely), assembly and packing constraints, cost of goods, country of origin, minimum order quantities, lead times, retail price target, market forces and trends, competition, etc. It’s always fun to start with a blank sheet of paper, as far as the style, but it’s a three-dimensional puzzle to get everything to work. Color and unique design details, like our dropouts and fork crown, are always fun.

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    Bike assembly in Detroit. Receiving its unique serial number.

    The frames and forks for Shinola bicycles are manufactured at Waterford’s facilities in Wisconsin, and the bikes are assembled by hand, in Detroit. How did this partnership come about?
    The bike business is relatively small, as an industry. I’ve known Richard Schwinn and Waterford for many years, so he took my call. He delivered the first frames in record time, which was amazing.

    Aesthetically, the Shinola designs are very minimal and elegant, but still manage to pack in a lot of features. What are some notable details about the Bixby and Runwell that you might not notice at first glance?
    I think the quality of the frame, the beauty and integrity of the welds, the beauty of the lugs and fork crown, custom dropouts and internal cable routing. The finish quality, meaning paint and decals, is really high. We’ve got custom-level touches like the cast head badges and the stamped chain stay plates. Invisible is the incredibly smooth and responsive ride quality, but certainly noticeable once you throw a leg over and take a spin.

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    Runwell bike being assembled in Detroit

    Recent years have seen a resurgence in bicycling as a mode of transportation in the US, and with it, the fixed-gear bike, which you had worked on long before they became ubiquitous. What are the factors you consider when designing a bike intended for urban use?
    I like to say you can ride any bike you want, just ride, but if you are starting from scratch with design you want something that has internal gearing, brakes that work under any weather conditions, wide tires with some puncture resistance and upright riding position so you can see traffic, the ability to attach fenders and racks. Everyone has different ideas about how they want their bike to be kitted out, so there is no one design detail that will make everyone happy. Part of the big fun with bikes is personalizing your ride. Some people will never ride in the rain, so they don’t want fenders. Some people will never ride at night, so they don’t want lights, etc. Saddles are like shoes; there is no one saddle that fits everyone. You make the bike yours by changing components, adding and subtracting. Minor adjustments can make a world of difference, as no two people have the same riding position, comfort zone, flexibility, etc.

    Which model in the Shinola lineup is your current favorite?
    The last one I rode! They are like kids – you can’t have favorites.

    Many thanks to Sky! You can find Shinola bikes in select Steven Alan stores and in our web shop, and learn more about them in this video:

    If you’re in Westport or East Hampton this weekend, come by our shops for a Shinola bike tour event:

    Shinola-Event

    Photo credits: 1: Courtesy of Sky Yaeger; 2-5: John Spinks; Video: Order & Other

    This entry was posted on Thursday, July 18th, 2013 at 11:07 am and is filed under In Stock, New Arrivals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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